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Hobbits may be diminutive, but they can sure haul cash.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a prequel to Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, ruled them all at the box office this weekend with $84.8 million, according to studio estimates from Hollywood.com.

The debut met the high end of expectations, despite mixed reviews from critics. About 65% of them recommended the film, according to survey site Rottentomatoes.com. Among the site's top critics, only 42% of reviewers from large outlets gave it a thumbs-up.

But even with its Oscar pedigree - 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King earned 11 Academy Awards, including best picture - the J.R.R. Tolkien franchise has subsisted more on ardent fans than critics, and shire dwellers gave the film strong marks.

About 81% of moviegoers liked Hobbit, Rottentomatoes says. Other fans gave the film an "A," says pollsters CinemaScore.

"This suggests that The Hobbit is in for a long, very healthy run at the box office through the remainder of the holiday season," says Ray Subers, chief analyst for Boxofficemojo.com.

The opening smashes the debuts of previous Rings installments, the highest coming in 2003 with King's $73 million bow.

Hobbit's opening "is benefiting from a higher markup on 3-D ticket sales," says Todd Cunningham of industry site TheWrap.com.

Still, he notes, "it's been nine years since moviegoers have had the chance to revisit Middle-earth, and they were glad to be back."

Tim Briody of Boxofficeprophets.com says that Hobbit's success can't be immediately measured.

"It's hard to quantify this as good or bad at this point," he says. "While it doesn't match the heights of stuff like The Avengers, The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises or even Twilight, none of the Lord of the Rings films exploded out of the gate, either. The bulk of their box office was earned over the money train that is the last two weeks of the calendar year."

No new movie dared challenge Jackson or Bilbo Baggins this weekend, so holdovers were left with table scraps.

The cartoon Rise of the Guardians was second with $7.4 million, followed by Steven Spielberg's Lincoln with $7.2 million.

Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise, took fourth with $7 million. Ang Lee's Life of Pi rounded out the top five with $5.4 million. Final figures are expected Monday.

Hobbit's opening was enough to keep turnstiles clicking. Ticket sales and attendance remain up about 6% over last year, virtually ensuring 2012 ends on revenue uptick.

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