Just days after the Leonardo DiCaprio climate change documentary Before the Flood hit the airwaves over on the National Geographic Channel, another feature executive produced by the Oscar-winning actor – and centering on a troublesome global issue — has arrived. However, rather than offering a look at how humanity’s actions are taking a toll on the environmental, The Ivory Game captures the ongoing illegal ivory trade, which is quickly robbing the world of its elephant population. Co-directed by Richard Ladkani (The Devil’s Miner) and Oscar nominee Kief Davidson (Open Heart), the film travels across the world to unravel the struggle involved in protecting these animals from the growing threat of extinction.
Following wildlife activists, frontline rangers, intelligence operatives and high-level conservationists all combating the ivory trade in their own ways, The Ivory Game delves impressively deep into the trafficking ring surrounding ivory, shedding light on an underground global network that most are blissfully unaware of. However, the film does lose a bit of its impact trying to balance so many perspectives into a less than two-hour runtime, and one wonders if footage in The Ivory Game might have been better off expanded into a miniseries format to allow each individual angle more time to be explored in depth.
As it stands, the film appears to be on the move so much that it’s difficult at times to connect with each story. Right when a particular one begins to intrigue viewers, they’re likely to find themselves swept away elsewhere at a moment’s notice.
Shot over the course of 16 months (and across three continents), The Ivory Game does feature some startling footage and solid editing throughout. Considering how much the film attempts to take on in one fell swoop, it’s remarkable that it comes together as well as it does. Ladkani and Davidson are intent on shocking viewers into action, and though plenty of jaw-dropping revelations reveal just how dire the future of elephants on this planet – African elephants, for instance, will likely be extinct within 15 years if nothing changes, the film claims — the footage featured here never truly comes together in a cohesive way to service the point it’s all trying to make.
More than anything else, The Ivory Game uncovers the greed-driven ambition that continues to motivate poachers to perpetuate illegal ivory trade and the world that allows it to persist. Specifically, the film calls out China’s legal ivory market, which drives much of the global interest in the material and allows price to stay sky-high. Even as nations continue to ban ivory, the Chinese market appears to have embraced it despite the deadly implications involved in acquiring it.
Meanwhile, the elephants themselves are forced to adapt to the incessant hunting for their valuable tusks, even learning how to hide them from those who may have a dangerous eye on how to transform these beautiful creatures into a source of profit. After all, as The Ivory Game mentions at one point, the more elephants that die, the more prices rise.
For Netflix, The Ivory Game marks yet another triumph. The film may not be an all-out winner, but it explores an issue on which the vast majority of viewers need further education. In addition to acclaimed series like Black Mirror and Stranger Things, Netflix has demonstrated a real devotion to bringing low-to-mid-budget films to a far wider audience. In particular, the company has already been home to nearly 30 documentaries since 2012, helping this particular style of storytelling to flourish in an age when the latest blockbusters are making it tougher than ever for documentary films to receive a proper theatrical release. Netflix proves that a safe haven exists for documentary filmmakers to shed light on important issues without a superhero or marquee Hollywood star in sight.
In the end, The Ivory Game is a strong effort to document the stories of a select few who are fighting to save elephants from the ravages of poachers and illegal traders. Though the structure could have better served the material, the content included therein – including some particularly heartbreaking images regarding the fate of the fallen elephants – effectively demonstrates just how widespread illegal ivory trade is and how the fate of an entire family of animals hangs in the balance. There’s a real passion for the cause among those onscreen, and it is an infectious one. With any luck, The Ivory Game can help spur more rigorous action towards solving this very real problem, even if the film itself might have delivered its message in a more impactful way.
While The Ivory Game's ambitiously broad look at the illegal ivory trade takes on a bit more than it needs to, it does shed some definite light on a growing global problem.