The minions may be the ubiquitous canary merchandising faces of the Despicable Me franchise, but they're not the reason for its success. Case in point: the minions movie sucked. They're funny enough, sure, as throwaway secondary distractions, they make toddlers laugh, but there's not enough there to carry a Saturday morning cartoon, let alone a feature-length movie. The reason the Despicable Me movies work is Gru. Voiced perfectly by the incomparable Steve Carrell, Gru is the ambitious, frustrated dreamer in all of us. He just happens to be a super-villain (though not all that good of one).
Gru's weary impatience imparts a mature, resigned quality to movies that would otherwise descend into bland drivel. This is the brilliance of Dreamworks (and Pixar, and others producing outstanding work in this golden age of family animated pictures). The kids laugh at the bumbling banana guys, but mom and dad relate to the long-suffering, emotionally broken protagonist. He's a talent, a visionary, and yet he falls short of his goals because he can't pay the price of the success he claims to crave. He simply can't commit to the evil in evildoer. It's this nagging softness, this vulnerability, that shows the way into a heart larger than it should be for three orphan girls and moviegoers alike.
Like The Incredibles, Despicable Me has fun poking holes in the self-important superhero genre, but the costumed antics are just the backdrop for the satisfying emotional voyage of Gru. His parenting (and later, courting) skills are riotously inept, an ongoing failing that all fathers and husbands and boyfriends recognize all too well. And yet when he marshals his intellect and skill and love, he realizes his dreams. Even the ones he never knew he had.