Los Angeles (AFP) - Reformed super-villain Gru adds to his burgeoning family this weekend with the release of "Despicable Me 3," which will likely push the gargantuan franchise past $3 billion at the box office.
But critics have warned that the seemingly unstoppable cash cow risks becoming "Predictable Me" unless its creators ring the changes for future outings -- including thinking the unthinkable and dropping the loveable Minions.
Universal's animation arm Illumination, which made "Despicable Me," its sequel and the spin-off "Minions," continues the adventures of Gru, Lucy and their adorable adopted daughters with the latest installment, due out next weekend.
The franchise has already taken $2.7 billion at box offices worldwide, and spawned a lucrative merchandising cottage industry taking in clothing, toys and theme park rides.
Early reviews for "Despicable Me 3" have been largely positive but at least two high profile critics are arguing for a smaller role or no part at all for Gru's sidekicks, the Minions -- small, yellow blobs that exist only to serve history's most despicable masters.
"As happened with 'Shrek' and various other cartoon franchises before it, Gru's ensemble is starting to feel a bit bloated," wrote Peter Debruge, Variety magazine's influential chief film critic.
"And before moving forward, the studio might want to shed a few characters, starting -- blasphemy of blasphemies! -- with the Minions, who now officially have Nothing To Do."
Echoing the controversial viewpoint, Wenlei Ma, of News Corp Australia's news.com.au website, described the film as a return to form after the "misguided" 2015 "Minions" spin-off placed the mischievous sidekicks front and center.
- 'Smaller doses' -
"If nothing else, 'Despicable Me 3' proves that those adorable, pill-shaped, banana-obsessed creatures are best enjoyed in smaller doses, as sidekicks and supporting characters, rather than be allowed to run rampant for a full 90 minutes," she wrote.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda -– who collaborated on "Minions" (2015) --"Despicable Me 3" had its star-studded premiere in Los Angeles on Saturday.
The movie picks up Gru's story as he is enjoying life with his three adopted daughters and new wife Lucy, played by Kristen Wiig, 43.
After he is fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to take down the latest bad guy to threaten humanity, Gru finds himself in the midst of a major identity crisis.
Steve Carell not only reprises his role as Gru, but also takes on a second part -- that of the character's long-lost twin brother Dru.
"Gru is very happy and content because he's found the love of his life, and the kids are great," 54-year-old Carell ("Foxcatcher," "The Big Short") said at a recent press day for the movie in Los Angeles.
"This long-lost brother shows up on the scene and causes some acrimony... between the two, because Dru, his brother, is enticing him to get back into a life of crime, and then I don't think Lucy is very happy about that idea."
Carell is clear that the Minions are still very much the stars of the show.
"They're singing, dancing, they still love to smack each other. There's a lot of good Minion stuff," he said.
Wiig, who has appeared in more than 40 movies, including "Bridesmaids," "The Martian" and "Ghostbusters," described working on the "Despicable Me" films as a career highlight.
"It's just a good time and it's a silly movie, but it's also really heartfelt and has important things to say," she said.
"I'm so proud to be a part of it -- I love it."