Director Jon Favreau wants to take you into the wild.
His upcoming Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book is a new spin on the classic tale of the boy raised by wolves and other jungle animals. An A-list cast of voice actors including Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Bill Murray provide voices, while a cutting edge blend of live action and CGI technology makes the wild animals look very real.
“We wanted to give a new take on some of it but maintain the traditions of both Rudyard Kipling’s book and the 1967 animated film,” Favreau tells PEOPLE. “We set out to design a world that felt at once both authentic to India [the story’s setting] and also felt mythic and dreamlike.”
One look at this exclusive set of cast and character photos, and it’s easy to see what Favreau means.
“Scarlett brings such a different energy than she does to other things,” Favreau says of Johansson’s portrayal of the duplicitous python Kaa. “She’s great. There is an innocence about her vocal performance and at the same time feels a little suspicious and off-putting. It’s interesting.”
Idris Elba’s character, Shere Khan, is a straight-up villainous predator.
“The movie only works if the villain works, that’s the secret,” says Favreau of Elba. “All of Idris’ personality and power come through in his voice. The animators had a wonderful time incorporating a lot of his body language and a lot of his facial performance that matches up with his voice.”
If audience members look closely, they will see hints of Elba in Shere Khan, as with Christopher Walken’s portrayal of giant ape King Louie, Ben Kingsley’s turn as panther Bagheera and Bill Murray’s take on Baloo the bear.
“With certain animals, using direct motion capture is helpful, like for King Louie,” explains Favreau of the animal animation. “Christopher Walken has such specific performance style that you want to capture that and we want to build the model to really match the face of Chris Walken. For Bill Murray, a bear’s face is very expressive and human and around the eyes with the wolves, we found the human expressions worked well. But we never wanted to break the reality that you’re looking at animals, so whether it was trying to get them as photo-real as possible, or restraining the performances so they didn’t get too human, that was the balancing act we played throughout this production.”
The wolves in question are Mowgli’s adoptive mother Raksha (Nyong’o) and father Akela (Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito). Favreau says both actors brought perfect emotional sensibility to their characters.
“She’s a very warm person and very open and enthusiastic,” Favreau says of Nyong’o. “Her voice brings the extra bit of emotional accessibility. Giancarlo is wonderful,” Favreau adds. “He brought a really cool not obvious performance to it. There’s a certain gentleness to him but he also has power.”
But how did they get these fictional animals to look so real? Favreau enlisted a team of FX experts and technology developed for James Cameron’s groundbreaking CGI stunner and box-office juggernaut Avatar.
“It looks different from anything else,” Favreau says proudly. “We’re kind of building off a tool set that was built for the most part for Avatar. The big thing was if we were going to commit to creating a world digitally, we needed to make it indistinguishable from nature as best we could, use the latest technology and if it was required, build new tools.”
The Jungle Book hits theaters April 15.