The magic of Shazam was always that a kid, with one magic word, could become a superhero. Jeff Smith recognized that and made the story about a young Billy Batson. In this version, Smith takes his ques not only from the original comic, but also from Harry Potter, and plays up Billy's homeless orphan roots, and builds sympathy for a good kid living a hard-luck life whose life is changed for the better by wizardry.
Smith, whose art remains crisp, clean and clear throughout, is at his best early on when he riffs off Otto Binder and C.C. Beck's origin tale. I loved the mysterious elements of the story when I was a kid, and Smith captures them perfectly while adding his own little touches here and there, and when Billy finally says the magic word and becomes Captain Marvel for the first time, even if, like me, you've seen it many times before, it is a glorious moment.
Like the Golden Age stories, Billy's and the good Captain's personalities are different. Billy, like his Hogwart's counterpart, is a bit mischievous in an adventurous sense, and not always mindful of his elder's warnings, which of course, leads to trouble. However, he is also streetwise, brave, caring and capable in his own right when dealing with the non-magical portions of his "reality." Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is the steadfast and faithful adult guardian capable of incredible feats of super-heroic daring, but he is also a bit naive and so new to the modern world that he's never even had the pleasure of eating a hotdog.
However, while Smith's take on Billy, Captain Marvel and Shazam were simply modern takes on the originals, many of the supporting characters get completely reworked. For instance, Mary Marvel is changed from a teen-ager, slightly older than Billy, to a smaller and younger kid sister. Also, unlike Billy, who becomes the adult Captain Marvel, Mary remains the same age when she transforms into her magical counterpart and retains her own cute and spunky personality.
Another Golden Age character, Mr. Tawky Tawny, a talking tiger with a penchant for wearing suit and ties, is changed into a shape-shifting magical guardian who looks after Billy. He doesn't quite have the charm of the original, but I imagine this iteration is more in keeping with the times.
Where I think Smith comes up short is in his take on the villains. Dr. Sivana, who was a weird and wonderful mad scientist in the Golden Age stories, becomes a less than impressive evil government bureaucrat whose motivations are less than clear. Also, the titular Monster Society is just some randomly weird monsters who run around attacking people at the behest of the mysterious Mr. Mind. While I will leave it to the reader to discover Smith's take on Mr. Mind and his origins, the final struggle felt a bit rushed and its conclusion a tad unsatisfying.
All in all, however, this is the kind comic book that I wish there were move of these days. I can imagine younger kids, boys and girls, reading this with a sense of whimsy and wonder, but like Harry Potter, older readers can enjoy it too.