“The Hobbit” brought home a big box office treasure over the weekend, setting a December movie record with $84.77 million (USD) 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 Hobbit” also set a record with its $15.1 million earnings from IMAX theaters worldwide, according to Warner Bros. It is also the largest opening for any film in the canon of “The Lord of the Rings.”

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 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 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.