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* First of three films based on classic novel
* Mixed response from critics to "Hobbit"
* 2012 box office take estimated to hit record $10.8 billion
By Patricia Reaney and Lisa Richwine
Dec 16 (Reuters) - "The Hobbit" brought home a big box office treasure over the weekend, setting a December movie record with $84.77 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales as legions of fans turned out for the long-awaited big-screen return to Middle Earth.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" also rung up sales of $138.2 million in international markets. Global receipts for the prequel to the smash "Lord of the Rings" trilogy stood at $222.97 million through Sunday, distributor Warner Bros. said.
The current projection for the total box office take in 2012 is $10.8 billion, according to an estimate from Hollywood.com, which would beat the $10.6 billion record in 2009.
The 3D "Hobbit" directed by Oscar-winning "Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson is the first of three films based on a 1937 classic novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Warner Bros. is aiming to build on the success of the "Rings" series, one of Hollywood's biggest franchises with $2.9 billion in global ticket sales.
The "Lord of the Rings" movies debuted in theaters from 2001 to 2003. After that, production on "The Hobbit" ran into delays, leaving fans waiting a decade for another look at the fantasy story of dwarves, wizards and elves.
The opening weekend "Hobbit" sales proved interest remained high. North American (U.S. and Canadian) receipts toppled the old record for December set by Will Smith sci-fi flick "I Am Legend," which pulled in $77.2 million when it debuted in 2007.
"The best we were hoping for was to reach or exceed the $77 million set by that movie and we did it by quite a lot. It was all good and we're very happy about it," said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Bros.
"You have to assume that by the time this first week is over we are going to have around $110 million in the bank before the holiday even starts," he added.
The new film follows the epic journey of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, as he travels through the treacherous Middle Earth with a band of dwarves to steal treasures from the dragon Smaug.
The movie also stars Richard Armitage and Benedict Cumberbatch, while Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Elijah Wood reprise their "Rings" roles.
Opening-weekend audiences embraced "The Hobbit," awarding an "A" grade in polling by survey firm CinemaScore. Critics had a mixed response to the nearly three-hour film. Sixty-five percent of reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website recommended the movie, although some objected to Jackson's decision to shoot it using a 48-frames-per-second format rather than the usual 24.
The faster frame rate delivers clearer pictures, but some critics called the format cartoonish and jarring. Some fans at early screenings in New Zealand complained it made them feel nauseous and dizzy, according to The New Zealand Herald. Only a fraction of theaters showed the film in the new format.
The next two "Hobbit" movies are schedules to reach theaters in December 2013 and July 2014. The films were financed by MGM and Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema unit for an estimated $500 million.
"The Hobbit" took a bumpy, years-long journey to the big screen that included two directors and a lawsuit. Jackson made the "Rings" trilogy when producers could not get "The Hobbit" rights that were held by MGM's United Artists unit.
Guillermo del Toro was first hired to direct "The Hobbit" but he left the project when financial woes at MGM caused delays. The movie went into production only after Jackson settled a lawsuit against New Line in a dispute over profits from the "Rings" films.
"The Hobbit" was the only new nationwide release over the weekend. The rest of the top five were films that have been playing for weeks.
In second place was the animated family film "Rise of the Guardians" with $7.4 million, followed by historical drama "Lincoln" starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the revered U.S. president, which grabbed $7.2 million from Friday through Sunday, according to studio estimates.
James Bond movie "Skyfall" landed in fourth place with $7 million.
Next on the box office chart was "Life of Pi," which captured $5.4 million. Teen vampire tale "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" earned $5.17 million.
Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. released "The Hobbit." "Lincoln" was produced by Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Co. Sony Corp's movie studio released "Skyfall." Dreamworks Animation distributed "Rise of the Guardians," which was released by Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures. Summit Entertainment, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment, released "Breaking Dawn."