Acadiana’s French immersion students are about to make a new animated friend. But he’s an old pal for many of their parents.
Starting this week, the Great Boudini will make his debut in full-color animation, with sidekick Coco the alligator, in an original cartoon produced by the homegrown media platform, Télé-Louisiane. The main character, based on Cajun ventriloquist and magician Ken Meaux, has attained something of a cult status among folks who grew up with him — mainly those born on the tail-end of Gen X or during the early Millennial years. Once a fixture on local television, as well as a frequent performer at private parties and public events for kids, the Great Boudini’s Cajun French badinage with his puppet Coco has largely receded into the realm of a generation’s memory.
“It’s multilayered,” says Lafayette artist Philippe Billeaudeaux, 36, co-director and effects animator for the show, called Les Adventures de Boudini et ses Ami. “We want it to be entertaining and fun. But we also want it to be educational, and to work within the frame of Louisiana.”
Created by a team of Louisiana artists and writers, each six-minute episode is scripted entirely in French. In addition to familiarizing students with phrases and vocabulary unique to Louisiana’s regional dialect, the show incorporates relevant social studies concepts from the state’s curriculum.
Will McGrew, 26, is the co-founder of Télé-Louisiane and says the cartoon fits within its mission to preserve not only Louisiana French, but also the state’s diverse cultural heritage writ large.
“The culture is definitely threatened,” McGrew says. “Not just because of language loss, but displacement of people and economic issues.”
Raised in New Orleans, McGrew founded Télé-Louisiana in 2018 alongside Lafayette native Drake LeBlanc, 22, in hopes of providing a platform for local creatives to sustain themselves by making media that ultimately keeps Louisiana’s unique cultural heritage alive for generations to come. Boudini, in this sense, is itself a magic trick of sorts; like pulling a rabbit from a hat, its creators have reached back into their memories of what it meant to grow up in Louisiana and pulled forth a colorful series of stories, songs and old friends.
Despite doing several hundred million dollars of business with out-of-state filmmakers every year, Louisiana can be a difficult place for residents to show off their talent. “There’s all these cultural works out there, but unless you know the filmmaker, you don’t really know how to access it,” says McGrew. “So that’s something we’d like to help with.” Télé-Louisiane is in conversations with a few different broadcasters and potential distribution partners and hopes to increase the amount of Louisiana-produced French language content on television in the coming years. For now, episodes of Boudini, as well as the network’s other media, are available to stream on Télé-Louisiane’s online platform.
Billeadeaux, who was in French immersion himself, would have loved a cartoon like Boudini back when he was in school.
“The poor teachers didn’t have a lot of resources, much less anything to show children in Louisiana French,” Billeadeaux says, remembering a French cartoon from Belgium and the sense of disconnect he felt watching it. “I thought, why not create something for kids that’s entertaining, teaches them French but also introduces them to Louisiana history, vocabulary and folklore?”
The first episode, par exemple, introduces French names for four common fish that live in local wetlands. Billeaudeaux hopes kids might be able to better relate to Boudini than some of the cartoons he watched in class, perhaps recognizing themselves in familiar settings and situations.
For his own part, Billeaudeaux credits French immersion with providing him an early sense of belonging to a larger community, as well as creative purpose later in his life. “Especially music,” he says. A longtime bassist for the band Feufollet, Billeaudeaux also wrote and recorded all of the music for Boudini.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says, “but also challenging, especially playing accordion and fiddle.”
In a classic case of process mirroring product, the creative team behind Boudini — which includes script-writer Maggie Justus and chief illustrator and character animator Marshall Woodworth — found the process of putting the cartoon together deeply educational in its own right.
Their weekly virtual meetings were conducted in what Billeaudeaux describes as a lively “Franglais,” giving everyone a chance to improve their language skills while also stretching themselves as educators and artists. The first six-minute episode took the team about two months to complete, although Billeaudeaux expects the work on future episodes won’t take as long.
Writing the score for the cartoon had Billeaudeaux pushing the limits of his musicianship in terms of style and instrumentation. “I’m trying not only to introduce Cajun and Zydeco sounds, but also other Louisiana music, from Swamp Pop to New Orleans R & B, blues,” he says.
The diverse range of music included in the show reflects the diverse nature of the region itself.
“We don’t deny that there are significant differences in Louisiana culture,” McGrew says, enumerating several distinct Louisiana identities — Creole and Cajun, as well as non-French speaking populations like Indigenous nations and Vietnamese communities. “At the same time, we always like to emphasize that there’s much more in common,” he continues, “in terms of both the impact of the language and numerous cultural practices.
”Ultimately, McGrew hopes Boudini, and the work of Télé-Louisiane in general, can bring folks together in a space focused on what we share rather than our differences. Above all, he sees cultural icons like the Great Boudini, foods like gumbo, practices like boucheries and Mardi Gras, even Cajun French itself, as assets that “belong to all Louisianans, and all Louisianans should be proud of them.”