Reformed super-villain Gru adds to his burgeoning family this weekend with the release of Despicable Me 3, which is highly likely to push the gargantuan franchise past US$3 billion (Dh11bn) at the box office.
But critics have begun to warn that the until now 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 the previous two Despicable Me films and the Minions spin-off – continues the adventures of Gru, Lucy and their adorable adopted daughters with this latest instalment, which will be in cinemas from Thursday.
The franchise has already taken $2.7bn at box offices worldwide and spawned a lucrative merchandising cottage industry that includes clothing, toys and theme-park rides.
Early reviews for Despicable Me 3 have been largely positive but at least two high-profile critics have argued for a smaller role – or even no part at all – for Gru's sidekicks, the Minions, those small, yellow blob-like creatures that exist only to serve the 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 this controversial view, Wenlei Ma, of News Corp Australia's news.com.au, described the film as a return to form after the "misguided" Minions film placed the mischievous sidekicks front and centre.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, who collaborated on Minions, Despicable Me 3 had its star-studded premiere in Los Angeles on Saturday.
The movie picks up the story of Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, as he enjoys life with his three adopted daughters and new wife Lucy, voiced by Kristen Wiig.
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.
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 whose arrival further complicates matters for the former villain.
• Despicable Me 3 will be in cinemas from June 29
* Agence France-Presse